“COVID Times” and the Increased Vulnerability of Victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation

Donna M. Hughes
Professor & Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson Endowed Chair in Women’ Studies

Uniting Voices Worldwide to Eliminate Violence Against Women, 2020

Women’s Freedom Forum
November 24, 2020

The global COVID pandemic is like nothing the world has experienced for 100 years. So many have been sickened, many have died, and the end is nowhere in sight.

Women and girls who are trapped and exploited in commercial sexual exploitation, particularly prostitution and sex trafficking, have additional vulnerabilities and problems.

Because of the risk of infection, many, but not all, men stopped buying sex. Brothels and red-light districts around the world were ordered closed.

As an abolitionist, I like the idea of the sex trade and red-light districts shrinking to the point of disappearing, however, it leaves the women vulnerable in new ways.

Around the world, the average age of entry into prostitution is between 12 and 14 years of age, which makes them by legal definition, victims of sex trafficking. Most of the victims are controlled by traffickers and other exploiters that live off them. They get to keep very little of the money they earn. Women in the sex trade are poor, stigmatized, marginalized, and in often in poor health. They suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from years of violence and abuse. They usually have drug and alcohol addictions. Generally, they have little education or skills. Rarely can they just “walk away.”

Women in prostitution always live very close to the edge. A decrease in the flow of money means they lack funds to buy basic necessities, like food. Reports say that many women are going hungry. In some African countries, a significant percent of the women are HIV+. They rely on the anti-viral medication to prevent them from developing AIDS and dying. Yet, it is difficult for them to take their preventative medication on an empty stomach. Doing so causes pain, weakness, and its own form of sickness. These conditions lead women to take greater risks to earn money from the men who still come; men who are often more dangerous. Because so many people look down on women in prostitution, few organizations or agencies offer assistance.

In the Netherlands and Germany where prostitution and brothels are legal, almost all the women are trafficked. Over 90% of the women in prostitution are from other countries, mainly Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and Ukraine.

With the spread of COVID, governments forced the closure of the brothels. The women were evicted because they worked on a freelance basis, so they had no security. Some of the women were able to return home; others could not because of border restrictions. Many of them are now homeless and trading sex clandestinely to survive, even though they risk catching the virus. It is either that or go hungry. Many of the women send money home to support family members. It is the dependence of family members that keeps many women in prostitution who’d like to leave. Most of their family’s back home do not know what the women do to earn the money they receive.

The politicians the Netherlands and Germany now realize that legalizing brothels 20 years ago was a mistake. Hundreds of thousands of women have suffered violence, exploitation, and lost their health, while the brothel owners, lover-boys, and traffickers have made billions of dollars. After the brothels closed due to the COVID pandemic, some German politicians saw this as an opportunity to reverse the mistake of two decades ago. They called for the brothels not to be reopened. They said “Re-opening the brothels will not help these women. Instead, they need apprenticeships, training, or work in a secure job.”

To date, the sex industry profiteers have too much political influence, and the brothels started to reopen in late summer and early fall. Although one of the largest brothels in the world, Pascha, in Cologne, has gone bankrupt. It was an 11-story brothel housing 120 women, who were used by 1000 men per day. As an abolitionist, I wish bankruptcy on many more.

The pandemic has worsened the conditions for women in prostitution. It has also given us a window to see how marginal their lives are, and how complex the issues are that keep them trapped. It has also given people some hope that all will not just go back to “normal” after the “COVID Times.”

Leave a Reply